The Man Who Was Rip Van Winkle Joseph Jefferson and Nineteenth-Century American Theatre Benjamin McArthur

Publication date:
16 Nov 2007
Yale University Press
464 pages: 235 x 156 x 34mm
28 b-w illus.
Sales territories:


The most beloved American comedic actor of the nineteenth century, Joseph Jefferson made his name as Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle. In this book, a compelling blend of biography and theatrical and cultural history, Benjamin McArthur chronicles Jefferson’s remarkable career and offers a lively and original account of the heroic age of the American theatre. 


Joe Jefferson’s entire life was spent on the stage, from the age of Jackson to the dawn of motion pictures. He extensively toured the United States as well as Australia and Great Britain. An ever-successful career (including acclaim as painter and memoirist) put him in the company of the great actors, artists, and writers of the day, including Edwin Forrest, Edwin Booth, John Singer Sargent, and William Dean Howells.  This book rescues a brilliant figure and places him, appropriately enough, on center stage of a pivotal time for American theatre. McArthur explores the personalities of the period, the changing theatrical styles and their audiences, the touring life, and the wide and varied culture of theatre. Through the life of Jefferson, McArthur is able to illuminate an era.

Benjamin McArthur is professor of history, Southern Adventist University. He is the author of Actors and American Culture, 1880-1920, and was an associate editor of the American National Biography.

"This is a masterful biography written with intelligence, insight, and respect. Benjamin McArthur uses the life of a now forgotten actor to tell the story of nineteenth-century theatre and, in turn, uses the story of nineteenth-century theatre to bring the actor back to life."óJean-Christophe Agnew, Yale University

"What a pleasure to encounter such an engaging, astute, and well-written biography of this unique American theatrical icon. Examined through the lens of Jefferson's long and productive career, there is insight into virtually every aspect of 19th-century theatre."óDon B. Wilmeth, editor, Cambridge Guide to American Theatre, 2nd ed.

"McArthur's greatest strength lies in his knowledge of the way the American theater developed . . . helping reveal to us our forgotten, and fascinating, theatrical past."--Robert Gottlieb, New York Review of Books